9 Essential Political Idioms in American English

9 Essential Political Idioms in American English

Guest post by Jennifer Renart from Next Step English.

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When students ask me about how to improve their English, one of the things I always recommend is watching the news in English. And you can’t watch the news without running into some common political idioms. Do you know what a spin doctor is? How about a fishing expedition? Keep reading to learn 9 essential idioms about politics in American English, complete with FREE infographic!

Political Idiom 1: Strange Bedfellows

When we say that two people, organizations, etc. make strange bedfellows, we mean that they form an unusual or unexpected political alliance. A sort of political odd couple.

via GIPHY

In the United States, the two main political parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. They are usually adversaries (= they usually oppose or compete with each other), so if a Republican and a Democrat worked together on an issue, we would say that they were strange bedfellows.

Example sentence: Did you hear that Randy Republican and Dorothy Democrat are working together on this new immigration bill? Talk about strange bedfellows!

Political Idiom 2: Lame Duck

This is a political idiom that you often hear after an election. A lame duck is a politician or a government that doesn’t have much real power because their period in office will end soon and their successor has already been elected. We most often use this idiom to talk about the US President, although it can apply to other politicians, too.

Presidential elections in the US take place in early November, but the newly elected president doesn’t start his term until January. The previous president is considered a lame duck from election day until the new president starts. Everyone knows they’re on their way out, so it’s difficult for them to get much accomplished. 

Example sentence: He was hoping to accomplish more during his last days in office, but he’d overestimated how much he could get done as a lame duck.

Political Idiom 3: Spin Doctor

When you spin something, you present information in a particular way, especially one that makes your ideas seem good or your opponents’ ideas seem bad.

So, what’s a spin doctor?

A spin doctor is someone who spins for a living! A spin doctor is someone whose job it is to present information to the public about a politician, an organization, etc. in the way that seems the most positive.

All US presidents have spin doctors. In current American politics, Kellyanne Conway is often referred to as President Trump’s spin doctor.

Example sentence: I’m not interested in the soliloquizing of spin doctors. What are the facts? The plain facts?

(Soliloquize = (usually disapproving) to give a speech about your thoughts, as if you were a character in a play speaking directly to the audience, instead of engaging in a conversation.)

Political Idiom 4: Politically Correct

You probably know that PC can refer to your desktop computer, but did you know that it has a political meaning, too? PC is a short way of saying ‘politically correct’.

If speech or behaviour is politically correct, it makes a deliberate effort not to offend a particular group (or groups) of people.

Political correctness is a hotly debated issue in the United States. On the one hand, it’s obviously wrong to make fun of the disabled or use racial slurs. On the other hand, some people become so worried about being politically correct that they worry that filling their eyebrows might be cultural appropriation. And my sister’s friend actually told her that it was offensive for her to practice yoga because she has European ancestry, not Asian ancestry. (In case you’re wondering, my sister has not quit yoga.)

In the United States, we have people who hate political correctness so much that they behave in offensive ways on purpose. And we have people who are so politically correct that they’re just obnoxious. Luckily, most people live somewhere in the middle.

Is political correctness an issue in your country? Tell us in the comments below!

Political Idiom 5: October Surprise

This American political idiom specifically refers to elections. So, what is an October surprise?

An October surprise is any news event orchestrated or damaging information released in the month before an election, deliberately timed in the hopes of affecting the outcome of the election.

Example sentence: Things look good now, but we need to be prepared for an October surprise. Anything can happen in the final days before an election!

Political Idiom 6: Witch Hunt

These days, you can’t escape this political idiom in American news. It seems to be everywhere on Twitter and other social media!

So what is a witch hunt? A witch hunt is a politically motivated, often vindictive investigation that feeds on public fears.

This popular idiom comes from a dark period in European and American history when people believed that witches were the cause of bad things happening in society. People began accusing members of their communities of witchcraft, and many of those people were executed on the basis of irrational evidence.

This idiom became popular in American politics during the McCarthy Era, when hundreds of Americans were aggressively investigated for potentially being Communists.

Example sentence: No reasonable person could think this investigation was actually after truth or justice. It’s a total witch hunt. 

Related: Are you hungry for more idioms? Check out our latest idioms here!

Political Idiom 7: (To Commit) Political Suicide

Committing political suicide means doing something unpopular that will likely lead to the end of your career as a politician.

Example sentence: I know you think these activists are idiots, but you can’t say that publicly. It’s political suicide!

Political Idiom 8: Fishing Expedition

When you go fishing, you dip your line into the water and hope that something bites. You might not catch a fish right away, but if you keep at it, you know that you’ll probably catch something eventually.

So, what is a fishing expedition? It’s a political and legal idiom that we use to describe an investigation carried out without any clearly defined plan or purpose, in the hope of discovering useful negative information about someone.

Example sentence: These document requests can’t possibly lead to the discovery of relevant information! You’re on a fishing expedition, and I think the judge will agree with me!

Political Idiom 9: Red Tape

I saved the best for last!

Have you ever been frustrated by endless paperwork when you need to do something with the government? Then you have been a victim of red tape!

Red tape refers to official rules that seem more complicated than necessary and prevent things from being done quickly.

This is something that I personally love to complain about. Curse you, red tape!

via GIPHY

…which is why, of course, I love the girl described in Cake’s ‘Short Skirt, Long Jacket’! (Jump to 1:32.)

I want a girl who gets up early.

I want a girl who stays up late.

I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity,

Who uses a machete to cut through red tape!

Example sentence: You want us to start construction next week? Think again, buddy! We’ve got at least 6 months of red tape to get through first, and that’s if we’re lucky.

Political Idioms Infographic

I hope you enjoyed learning these popular political idioms. Here’s an infographic to help you remember them! Check out more great infographics for learning English here!9 Essential Political Idioms in American English


Jennifer from Next Step English

Jennifer Renart from Next Step English

Jennifer founded Next Step English so she could help advanced English learners master the vocabulary that native speakers don’t expect them to know. Vocabulary that will make native speakers think, ‘Wow! You really know English!’

In her free time, she loves hiking, playing Bananagrams, and binge-watching British murder mysteries.

You can check out her website, or interact with her on Twitter, Pinterest, or YouTube.

‘Happy learning, English nerds!’ 👊🤓

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